Today we had our first ride on a purpose-built cycle route. Well, more like a recycled version of such a route, forgive the pun, as it’s along what was once the towpaths alongside the Canal de Berry. This route stretches from Montluçon in Allier to Tours in Indre-et-Loire, with a slight diversion off to Nevers in Nièvre.
We parked by Decathlon in Montluçon and gingerly cycled through part of the city on alleged cycle lanes that appeared and disappeared at random intervals. We soon picked up the cycle route. I had no idea so much of the canal still existed. It’s been built over in the city itself.
Not surprisingly for a path alongside a canal it’s very flat. That means you can crack on at a goodly pace but it does get a trifle tedious after an hour or so. Chris and I are too used to cycling in the foothills of the Massif Centrale with its inevitable hills. We usually around 300 metres of climbing (altitude metres) on our rides. Today we did just 55 during our 45 km outing.
It was interesting. There were the old locks and lock-keepers’ houses to see, bridges, a few restored barges and a memorial to a crashed Stirling bomber which was brought down my flak during a raid on the Dunlop factory in Montluçon on the night of 15/16 September 1943. One lock has been restored beautifully.
There was natural beauty too – the canal with plants and creatures in and hovering over it, trees, a pair of storks, some moorhens, the river Cher at one point and generally pleasant scenery.
We rode as far as Vallon en Sully, where there was, very conveniently, a café. That marked a good halfway point for our journey.
The ride back was a good bit hotter as there was less shade with the sun now higher above us. We had to leave the cycle path here and there to find a tree to cool down under for a while.
There were quite a lot of other cyclists about, and walkers too, enjoying this facility. An elderly Dutch couple swept past us on sit-up-and-beg bikes at one point, making us feel inadequate as cyclists until we realised their bikes were electric!
The route is well signed, and there are barriers wherever the path crosses a road so that motor vehicles can’t sneak along it. It was a nice experience to check it out. We’re not tempted to do an end-to-end, but we will probably do the section northwards from St Amand Montrond.
To finish, some history for you. The canal was built, mainly by Spanish prisoners of war, between 1809 and 1839, or 1811 and 1841 according to other sources, on the orders of Napoleon 1st who wanted a link between the rivers Loire and Cher. It’s 261 kms long with 96 locks, and was in use from 1840 until 1955. Only 15 kms of are is still navigable. The locks are relatively small and so the boats that used the canal were the equivalent of British narrow boats. They were called berrichons. They could carry 60 tonnes of freight, mainly cast iron from the forges in Montluçon, pit props, coal, wine and spirits. Up to 890 berrichons operated along the canal, pulled by two or four mules, donkeys or horses. One, called the Espanola, has been restored and is docked up by the café we stopped at.
I shall certainly be looking deeper into the canal’s history as I think it’s fascinating, and I dare say I’ll share some of my findings with you.
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